Dowbiggin: Time for Bettman to walk away

Special to The Globe and Mail

Bruce Dowbiggin posts his perspective on the world of sports each morning.

We all know Gary Bettman by now. He’s been around so long, he’s like a member of the family. One who hides the car keys from us every so often because he’s seen what we’re spending on the AmEx card. Or who tells us our fly is down when company comes over.

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We understand that it’s not him; he takes his marching orders from above. Yet he endures. He’s been a willing punching bag for public opinion, a trough into which Canadians have poured their anti-American bile. He’s handed out the Stanley Cup while fans booed him like he was Bernie Madoff. He’s suffered Ron Maclean asking him esoteric questions about practice time at rinks in Minnesota. The commissioner has been in Phoenix so often he can vote there in the presidential election.

Bettman and Bill Daly have spent more time getting in and out of elevators than Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment . He’s fielded inane media queries with the grace of a man who’s been told his tie and handkerchief don’t match. He’s endured the league’s COO John Collins coming to his office five times a day to say, “Are we there yet?” He’s had to look at the game on the ice even though his Blackberry is burning in his palm.

He’s taken it all like a man. Okay, a $7.5-million man. But as the NHL and its players vie with Lance Armstrong on the toxicity scale, it’s necessary to ask: How does the NHL continue after this lockout with Bettman as the face of their business?

While he doesn’t score goals or drop in front of shots, Bettman is one of the five most recognized names in the business. Presumably it’s his kisser that sponsors and broadcasters conjure up when they think of the NHL. But he’s also the face of three owner-generated lockout in 18 years. And you’re going to get him to sell fans and business people on accepting the Vegemite sandwich of a reduced season and compressed schedule?

We’re not the only ones who’ve noticed. Bill Simmons of Grantland calls him NBA commissioner “David Stern’s mole with direct orders to turn hockey into a second-class sport.” Simmons goes on: “At this point, Bettman would lose any election to any human being with even rudimentary hockey connections unless it was the actor who played Wolf “The Dentist” Stansson in D2: The Mighty Ducks .”

As much as we might like Bettman (come on, somebody out there likes him ) how do you say that it’s business as usual when he and Don Fehr get done back-diving and forward averaging the business?

Let us give you an analogy. There’s a bus company in our town that had a tragic crash a few years ago. People died. Such was the desire of the bus company to put the tragedy behind them that they changed the name of their company! And they got rid of the driver.

The NHL can’t change its name, but it can change the driver of its bus after it went it into the ditch yet again. Maybe one of the networks will hire Bettman as an analyst on their infinitesimal panels, the way they do the defrocked coaches and GMs. “I must say I really like their active sticks, Mr. Duthie...” Perfect.

But the time has come. Don’t let the penalty gate hit you on your way out, Mr. Commissioner.

Can someone explain…

What’s with the “Honk If You Love Hockey” commercials on Sportsnet? Do our good friends at Rogers actually see themselves as disinterested parties in the lockout? Would Mr. Bettman not take their call? Please.

And lastly …

Speaking of Sportsnet, it took the time to broadcast the introductory press conference of the Boston Red Sox new manager. That would be John Farrell, of course, who, once upon a time (last season), was the manager of a team owned by Sportsnet’s parent company, Rogers Communications.

Farrell revealed he’s been trying to get out of his Toronto contract since about 15 minutes after he signed the thing and Alex Anthopoulos smashed a plate and went “Opa!” Okay, our reception might have been a little problematic there. Still, the biggest challenge in all this trading of managers isn’t the loss of Farrell, who hasn’t reminded anyone of Tony La Russa lately.

The problem lies in the perception of Toronto as some anodyne airport city where baseball players and managers wait till a real team calls. The biggest challenge to the Blue Jays building a winner again (reminder: 1993 was last time they made the postseason) is making Toronto a destination, not a transfer point for talent.

Farrell’s defection to Boston flies in the face of that. Fairly or not, it tells MLB that Toronto is not serious about winning. Sort of like the image the Raptors now battle with NBA players. We don’t have to tell you that a rap like that is death.

dowbboy@shaw.ca / Twitter: @dowbboy